Małe miasto wielki świat

Cities for Thought

The Small Town and the Big Wide World

Publication: 30 August 2021

NO. 5 2011



When the last “Other” – the burgher class – was gone, the town itself ceased to exist. All that remained was a vast residential estate, with all modern conveniences online – gas, central heating, electricity, running water, telephone lines, even cable TV and all the rest – the “hardware” of the town – but devoid of the “software” of a real urban culture.

Slovak towns of the first half of the 20th century resembled in many respects, above all in their heterogeneous ethnic and religious composition, microcosms of central Europe. Their population structure comprised members of three main nationalities – Slovaks, Hungarians and Germans – and three different confessions – Catholics, Protestants and Israelites, each in varying proportions. The capitalist urban organism lived in symbiosis with its still partly pre-capitalist rural surroundings, standing one foot in the past, the other in the future. Yet this is not an accurate image – it is too static. From at least the end of the 19th century the town, with its unique dynamics, was pulling away from yesterday, it was in motion.

In the first half of 20th century towns ranged in physical stature from that of a large gnome to that of a small giant. Even the largest, Bratislava and Kosice, could be taken in their entirety from a church steeple. The belles lettres and journalism of the period are full of critical, even ironic observations on the contemporary small town. But there are other testimonies, too. How, for instance, did a rural parish priest see Nitra in 1895?

“On the right, on a sloping bank as we walk from Farska Street in the direction of the saltworks house, we have Kupecka Street. This is a street decorated with shops, traders’ advertisements and shop windows. In the evenings it is crowded with everything that is or at least would purport to be refinement itself. Along the pavements, illuminated with hundreds of lights in the display windows of the shops – gas lights, for since 1892 Nitra has been illuminated with gas, and is now seriously weighing up funding electric lighting for the whole town – bustle swarms of the fair sex in particular, accompanied by younger adolescents of the bold, well-behaved, and even on occasion importunate sex, courted by each of these shops with its showy derivatives of Parisian taste: new outfits, hats, parasols, silken fabrics, bracelets, rings and brooches littered with diamonds, emeralds and sapphires. How all this glitters in the brightest of hues! How many sighs, gazes, comments large and small.” On another street are banks, cafés, hotels, “shops with fashionable things, with windows as huge as gateways from a single pane of glass, so that one is afraid the shop will escape from them through that window. But this is part of trade advertising – and so it must be in Nitra also.”

This description of Nitra, written a hundred years ago by Jozef Kompánek for the publication Tovarišstvo II[1], contrasts sharply with the enduring notion of Slovakia and the whole of the wider region as a purely agricultural area. This is not a contrast between the countryside and Budapest or Vienna, but between the countryside and the local town, which can be reached on foot. Kompánek was the parish priest in Stratice, but he knew the world, he had studied at the famous Vienna Pazmaneum. I like the word he uses: so it must be. In Nitra and everywhere else there had to be not only illuminated shop-window displays, but also many other things: seven banks, a gaggle of lawyers, 33 physicians, 109 teachers and professors, 12 factories, a casino, insurance societies, a regional newspaper. All this was a vital response to the challenges of the age, a condition of the survival of the townspeople and the town, because neither the place nor they were ever the ones to dictate the speed, form or criteria of competition. These were established beyond our borders, beyond our set of historical circumstances – in the West. They imposed themselves and took root everywhere, in the form of mass production, technological innovations, strong financial resources, a better organised society, attractive forms, fashion trends, with all the impetus and resonance of representatives of the future. In such a world, and here also, the symbol of the town, like once its walls, are now paved streets, a park, secondary schools, factories, an abattoir, and a mains water system. The minutes of sessions of municipal councils from these times are full of debates on interest rates, tenancies, insurance policies and loans, and the opposition criticising the municipal bigwigs for squandering money on trips to Germany to gain experience of street lighting and rubbish collection. The word “ecology” was not yet in existence, but worries about air pollution in the vicinity of factories, poisoned streams, and dying woodlands were real enough.

Even a hundred years ago the big wide world with its material and civilisational achievements was not far away; it was here. Sometimes and in relation to some issues, it was real, other times it was present as a postulate, and often it was no more than the frustration resulting from the absence of something already experienced but remaining out of reach. This drive to alter the physical substance of the town continues uninterrupted from the end of the 19th century into the present. It proceeds at varying rates, of course, but remains essentially unaffected by political shocks and social change. In cutting ribbons at official openings, politicians have always sought to prove that this bridge, this school, this edifice, this dam are tangible proof of the exclusive historical justification of their rule.

Most of our towns, where they did not become ossified back in the pre-capitalist days, and were not flattened in the air raids of the Second World War or by the post-war apartment block fever, can still today boast baroque, neo-baroque, Renaissance and neo-Renaissance buildings, but also examples of Sezession, functionalism and pseudo-functionalism, Stalinist baroque and the post-Stalinist abandon in throwing up tower blocks. Their post offices, municipal offices, banks and insurance societies, Mutual Agricultural Societies, schools, cultural centres, cinemas, revenue offices and district offices, court houses, railways stations, hospitals, hotels and barracks are still standing, still serving their purposes in defiance of all revolutions and political evolutions, still as obvious and unmoved as the memorials to their constructors and political “openers” standing in the cemeteries alongside them.

The ability to keep the “hardware” of urban civilisation at a distance facilitating at least visual contact with the rest of Europe is admirable. This was probably partly due to the fact that it was a very slow, lengthy process. In the 19th century already modern hygiene standards encouraged the building of mains water and sewerage systems, but there was no sense of need to take account of these standards at once. The people of Trnava debated the necessity for construction of a mains water system heatedly for a quarter-century, and only eventually built it in the 1920s. In other places the process took even longer. In the same manner, the residents of Trencin began discussing the need for a theatre or a municipal cultural centre at the beginning of the century – and still do not have either today. Challenges and postulates from the social and political spheres, by contrast, required immediate responses. The “software” of urban society was undergoing rapid, often fundamental change, for the most part without the opportunity for major, longer-term preparations. This was not so discernible in the initial phases of modernisation; the breakthrough came with the First World War.

Those alive at the time were well aware of the historic significance of their age. The writer Ján Hrušovský in his memoirs Stála vojna stála (The war was constantly costly)[2] described this change from the perspective of a small-town Slovak intellectual. The pre-war world, he said, was closed to rapid, large-scale change. “Aims? Ideals? Plans? There is no way of implementing them. It is absolutely out of the question that the old order should be stood on its head by them.” But the first bodies and battlefield experiences transformed his view of the world. “What I thought was impossible has become an irreversible fact. The helm of history has veered away from the well-worn course and steered us into the very midst of a battle of the titans, destroying concepts and the inviolability of the status quo, undermining inherited, accepted forms of authority.”

Hrušovsky’s “destruction of concepts” applied not only to states, but to all their inherent components – towns, cities, and urban society. The complex structure of cities referred to above was not the result of freedom of competition – there were nationalities, confessions and social groups that were privileged, others that were unprivileged, and yet others that were brutally suppressed. The heterogeneity of urban populations certainly produced a synergetic effect, innovative products and interesting achievements in some situations, but it also led to a lack of openness toward others, to phobias, and even to the evolution of parallel cultures.

Among the most persistent myths of our towns, in particular Bratislava, are the nostalgic images of some kind of idyllic, problem-free symbiosis between national and confessional groups before 1918. In reality, the lines of future fronts were being drawn even then. It is true that people coming to blows over ethnicities in taverns and bars was ubiquitous (hot-tempered Pressburgers might call out the police to Slovak students over a few Slovak songs), but at the very beginning of the century even such a cosmopolitan institution as the freemasons’ lodge split along ethnic lines into German and Hungarian sections. Nationalist conflicts reared their heads within the Lutheran Church, and between the German and the Hungarian Calvinists. The socialist Internationale divided into Slovaks and “others,” problems arose over the division of German and Hungarian theatre seasons, and so on.

The rose-tinted vapours that later settled on the pre-war times were the result of a drastic present and the fact that at the turn of the century at least no-one was herding anyone else into cattle trucks. But fuel for the later fire was also provided by the townspeople of those times, not least because before 1918 neither state nor society had developed effective models or strategies to be followed by different cultures or behaviour to be observed by majorities in respect of minorities. No great ideological and social confrontations had previously been played out to their logical conclusions, ending in a victory for one or the other party, or in mutual understanding that compromise is better than the annihilation of both parties. The Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, a conflict that had driven a wedge between urban societies for centuries, was resolved from outside, by directive, the patent of Joseph II. The conflict of statehood between the Habsburgs and independent Hungary, between the kurucoks and the labancoks[3], of which István Bibó[4] wrote so much, also remained unresolved from within for 300 years. It was truncated from without by the defeat dealt to the Habsburgs and the Hungarians in the First World War.

Over the decades prior to the outbreak of war, when Hrušovsky was still of the belief that it was “out of the question that the old order should be stood on its head,” conflicts and the inability to resolve them definitively were masked by what Bibó calls a “system of collective lies.” In the micromodel of central Europe also – in urban society – the war and the defeat forced a revision of these “collective lies.” This is best illustrated by statistics illustrating the changes in the ethnic composition of Slovak towns. There have been many descriptions and analyses of the gradual displacement of the Slovak and German elements from towns prior to 1918. But the population census of August 1919 shows an entirely different picture: numbers of Hungarians had fallen from 50% and above to 8–10% and below. The long-term tragedy of Magyarisation, with the immense moral costs and cultural losses it imposed on the whole of society and the state, proved to be a system of great collective lies. But other similar systems also collapsed, such as the traditional restriction of citizens’ access to town management functions due to their financial standing, education and social status. Universal suffrage demonstrated at once that the town was more than simply its main square, casino, coffee house and promenade, that there were also suburbs, lanes, yards at the backs of tenement houses, and in them hired hands, maids, labourers, ordinary people – and that these were in fact the majority. The two great social forces of the 20th century, nationalism and the class struggle, had been visible earlier, but it was only the shock of the First World War and the involvement of the Big Wide World that enabled them to take ownership of the squares, town halls, elections, parties, societies, demonstrations and culture. It was not democracy that created these forces, but it was democracy that gave them form. The historical question was “With what purpose?” In order to seek out some way of living side by side, or at least alongside each other, or to close ranks ahead of the last battle?

Our research into the situation in Slovak towns between the wars suggests that it may have been about both these aspects at once. There were elements of systematic construction of both bridges and trenches. There was patient building of democratic infrastructure, but also political sectarianism. One noteworthy phenomenon in this regard, perhaps of interest in the broader context of central Europe and the way in which events subsequently unfolded, was the fact that Slovak towns of the interbellum did not produce any truly urban political parties. The dominant forces were the agrarian and people’s parties, rural agricultural parties for which the town and its citizens served as little more than a kind of service, an accoutrement to the rural world. Several drives by the artisans’ party, National Democracy, to penetrate urban spheres, were unsuccessful, as were attempts to establish local “civic” or “bourgeois” parties. Social democracy convinced only one segment of the urban electorate, while the communists were strongest on the large landed estates. Even Milan Hodža’s Central Europe, the only relatively coherent Slovak geopolitical concept, was essentially agrarian in its programme.

We will never obtain an unequivocal answer to the question of whether during the interbellum urban communities were rallying forces for confrontation or a process of reconciling differences had begun. Just as in 1918 any development of the situation had been aborted by interference from outside, from the Big Wide World, so Hitler’s expansion shattered any vision of a central European formula for reconciling differences and living together, trampling roughshod over the lives of all strata of urban society.

Two phenomena are characteristic for this phase of the encroachment of the Big Wide World on the microcosm of the small town. The first is development and a new brand of radicalism. In the decades preceding the First World War residents of small towns could buy into the ubiquitous Big Lie and automatically reap all its benefits, including its protection. After an initial period of prevarication, society took up this game again after 1918. There were pathetically few anti-Hungarian dissidents, too few for them to take control of society and set its course alone.

Even after 1938, at least at first, this game seemed to continue, but by this stage it was no more than an exclusive performance for a select few. The ostracised minority had no chance any more: it was condemned to annihilation. And connected with this is the other sign of the times: the principle of “collective guilt” so frequently referred to by Bibó. There have been many descriptions of the way in which this principle was initially applied to the “bourgeoisie” – the “bourgeoisie” in its broadest, indeed virtually boundless, sense. It was this imposition of “collective guilt” in urban society, in a way that directly affected its daily life – stared it in the face, so to speak – that created personal, almost insurmountable borders between nationalities, classes and confessions. Human feelings and tradition attempted to overcome them, but the “top-down” trend was unequivocal: not toward overcoming borders, but toward destroying them by destroying those who differ from us. “The Other” is no longer simply a different plant, but a weed, and the only way of eradicating it once and for all is to flood the garden with concrete.

When the last “Other” – the burgher class – was gone, the town itself ceased to exist. All that remained was a vast residential estate, with all modern conveniences online – gas, central heating, electricity, running water, telephone lines, even cable TV and all the rest – the “hardware” of the town – but devoid of the “software” of a real urban culture. Did something similar not befall central Europe itself?

In our search for an answer to this question, we are once again constantly coming up against Bibó’s “system of collective lies.” Every revolution, every regime, has its own – original, borrowed or inherited – lies, or at least tried and tested methods and tactics for employing them. Among the most enduring is the view that the difficult fate that befell central Europe and its constituent entities in past decades was the outcome of blows dealt from without, whether they be known as Versailles, Trianon, Munich, Vienna, Yalta or Malta. In order to deal with the consequences, all that needs to be done is to remove the causes: build a sufficiently high wall, cut ourselves off from those who would wish us ill and are malevolently disposed towards us, and build our own brave new world. The other option is to find other allies, this time real ones, who will do it for us. Serious historical research, however, has shown time and again that the influence of the Big Wide World on what happens here is undeniable, constant and huge, but that there has never actually been a “slaughter of the innocents” of biblical proportions. Every external act of destruction has worked by leveraging forces that were already present within the state, town, or other geopolitical region. All it usually took was space. This applies not only to chauvinism, xenophobia and racism, but also to class hatred and fundamentalism with any element of force. What went on here for half a century was not murder, but neither was it suicide. It was more like the pitiful death throes of an addict on an empty stairwell. In apportioning blame it is hard to assess the balance between the victim’s weakness and the dealer’s greed.

The world which died in this way, partly by its own hand – in towns from Michalovce to Skalice, from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea and the Adriatic Ocean – can undoubtedly never be resurrected. The nostalgic, somewhat pathetic attempts to fill out and revive the former urban hardware with an imitation of the bygone world are vain. People can, and certainly will, gather once again on avenues and in town centres, but these will never be the promenades of old. The roots of historical phenomena often go surprisingly deep, but today is defined by yesterday, not by the day before yesterday. We cannot overcome a half-century, two generations. Neither at the urban level nor at that of the wider central Europe.


Text published with the kind permission of Jaroslav Lipták, first published in the periodical OS 1997, no. 4, reprinted in the volume Slovenská otázka dnes (The Slovak question today), Rudolf Chmel (ed.), Kalligram, Bratislava 2007. OS (short for občianska spoločnosť – civil society) is the most important Slovakian forum of civic thought, discussing these issues in a broad social, political and cultural context. The magazine publishes essays, interviews, reviews and commentaries by Slovakian and foreign intellectuals.


[1] Tovarišstvo – anthologies published by František Osvald at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries (transl. note).

[2] A pun: stála means both “constant” and “cost” (transl. note).

[3] The kurucoks were armed insurrectionists resisting Habsburg rule in Hungary and active in the years 1671–1711, above all during the Thököly uprising (1672) and the Rakoczy uprising (1703–1711). Labancoks was the name given to the supporters of the Austrian court and to Hungarian soldiers loyal to the emperor in the 16th–18th centuries, also used above all during the Thököly and Rakoczy uprisings. The labancoks were the antithesis of the kurucoks (ed. note).

[4] István Bibó (1911–1979) – one of the greatest central European social and political thinkers of the 20th century. The particular historical entanglements of post-war Hungary prevented him, as a victim of repression in his own country, from becoming known and recognised until after his death. Broader interest in his work was only aroused in the 1980s. At the same time as the publication of a major Hungarian edition of his writings in 1986, his book Misère des petits États d’Europe de l’Est also came out in Paris. Aside from the work that gave its title to the whole collection, his other important works include The Jewish question, The crisis in Hungarian democracy, The distorted Hungarian character, the contradictory history of Hungary, The peace treaty and Hungarian democracy, and Hungarian social development and the meaning of the 1945 transformation.

About authors

Lubomír Lipták

Eminent historian, a major figure in Slovak intellectual life in the 20th century. From 1952 until 1971 he worked in the History Institute of the Slovak Academy of Sciences. After 1970 he was the victim of political persecution. During the normalisation period he worked at the Slovak National Museum. After 1989 he was readmitted to the History Institute of the Slovak Academy of Sciences and appointed as editor-in-chief of the journal Historický časopis. He was one of the first history scholars to take account of the broad political, sociological and economic context. He was interested in the questions of modernising Slovakia and formation of a civic society. In 1968 his work Slovensko v 20. Storočí (2nd edition 1998) was published, which was partly also an attempt at explicating the philosophy of Slovakia’s contemporary history. He also often used his historical texts to comment on contemporary Slovakian realia. He is the author of a concise history of Slovakia and the Slovaks intended for a foreign readership – A history of Slovakia and Slovaks (published in English, French and German).


Copyright © Herito 2020